Lucy Lewis, the UK’s first female bomb disposal expert: ‘Every day at work could be my last’

As the UK’s first female bomb disposal expert, making life or death decisions was a routine part of the job for Lucy Lewis. She reveals how she learned to think like a bomber… and why she still checks under her car.

This could be it,’ I mutter to myself. I am 26 years old, a duty bomb disposal officer, the first woman ever to be listed on the Operational Bomb Disposal Officer Roster, and this is my first emergency callout. We are on our way to investigate the report of a bomb found when a homeowner was digging in his garden.

Lucy lewis
Lucy on her first mission, Operation Crabstick, in 1990, clearing 18 live wartime explosives at Eastleigh Airport

I am in the passenger seat of a speeding Land Rover, its blue lights flashing as we try to keep pace with the police escort up ahead. I glance back to check the kit: boxes of sensitive detonators and enough plastic explosive to practically vaporise us. The hairs on the back of my neck prick up in nervous anticipation. I grit my teeth. This is what the training was for. When we arrive at the bomb all eyes will look to me for guidance. I’ll be making decisions that are the difference between life and death. Since the beginning of the Blitz in 1940 it has always been men who deal with the unexploded bombs and munitions that war leaves behind. Today, for the first time ever, it will be a woman – me.

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In 1987, I was working in airport security when I was selected to join Operation Raleigh, a development charity. I only applied because my employer sponsored the selection weekend and I wanted to show that I was keen for promotion, but my dormant sense of adventure was awakened by helping to crew a tall ship voyaging up the Amazon and on to the Caribbean. Two years later, I set off to Sandhurst to enrol in the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC), the only part of the non-medical Army that women could join at the time.

At 25, I was the second oldest in the company and felt woefully inadequate beside some of the bright, fit, capable and confident young women, many fresh from University Officer Training Corps.

We had to learn to be soldiers before training to be officers. This involved an inexorable schedule of inspections, drill, weapons handling and map reading. We were so short of time that we often didn’t eat lunch. Nor did we actually sleep in our beds – or even sit on them, because of the hours spent ironing each piece of bedding. Having finally managed to position the centre crease of the striped bedcover so it lined up perfectly with the razor-sharp crease down the centre of the pillowcase, I unrolled my soldier’s thin grey roll mat and slept on the floor.

Random ‘change’ parades were a common feature of Sandhurst training. Staff Beech, our fierce female staff sergeant, called out a uniform and we raced to put it on and stand as a squad to be inspected in minute detail for creases, fluff or any missing items. A twisted shoelace or speck of dust in the welts of your shoes was enough to ruin everything. ‘You are only as strong as the weakest link’ is the message we were painfully grasping, as well as the necessity of having all your kit ready for immediate use at all times. Both are life-saving military lessons.

Besides being immaculately dressed, cadets had to keep their ID, room keys and paper and pencil about their person at all times, but the women’s uniforms had no pockets whereas the men’s had six. Our Sandhurst solution was to put everything inside our hats. During freezing winter parade practice, the men wore layers of thermal trousers and thick socks while we shivered in cycling shorts under our skirts and 15-denier tights.

The main difference between the men’s and women’s training was the unspoken pressure to perform. All cadets were under constant scrutiny at Sandhurst, but women were under a far greater weight of expectation. Any weakness or mistake would send us all backwards, so the stakes were high. The feeling that we are being set up to fail, however, is one that all female cadets experience. The hardware at Sandhurst, such as the steeplechase and obstacle courses, is all designed for men, so short telegraph poles that are meant to be used as stepping stones for a confident male stride become a completely different, far more difficult obstacle. Even the weapons represent an additional barrier. The grip on the standard issue Browning 9mm pistol is designed for a large male hand.

Lucy Lewis
Lucy after her transfer to the Royal Military Police, 1991

Alongside the lessons on managing in a male world, we were armed with wily defences against any ‘difficulties’ we might encounter. This advice was always very much by the book – but the real knowledge you need is delivered privately, after we’d left Sandhurst. On one notable occasion, we were given some never-forgotten advice by a stout lady of a certain age, Colonel Knight. ‘To be a social success as a woman, in any walk of life, not just the Army, one only needs to get two things right – what to wear and when to leave,’ she instructed. ‘Although all military invitations specify a strict dress code, it is the small details that are so important. Tights are totally unacceptable and must never be worn. I, for example, when going to a mess dinner, wear stockings with a suspender belt and a garter and a minimum of six pairs of knickers. The first pair are my normal pair from Marks & Spencer and their sole duty is to stay on. On top of these I wear a black leather thong, a leopard-skin pair with a zip up the front, a pair of PE knickers, followed by a see-through crotchless pair – all topped off with some spotty pantomime bloomers.’

You could have heard a pin drop.

There was, she explained, an after-dinner game that involved the two most junior officers swapping places without being seen by crawling under the table. Each steals an item from someone at the top table – where a lone woman is likely to be seated. Usually, this is one of the Colonel’s spurs, but with a woman present, the winner is the first man to reach the opposite chair wearing the female officer’s knickers on his head.

‘Can you imagine their relief when they see that you are ready with a pair of knickers balanced on each foot, ready for them to take as they go past? Everyone will know you’re game for a laugh. Your reputation will soar. You must,’ she added, ‘be prepared to play their games but always on your own terms!’

On our return from our final Sandhurst exercise, when we had passed all the required military skills tests and convinced the staff that we deserved to become commissioned officers, we were informed of our first postings. We didn’t get a choice, so speculation was rife and nerves ran high. The next two years of my life depended entirely on what came next. I held my breath.

‘You are going to be a bomb disposal officer with 33 Engineer Regiment EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) in Chatham!’

If I passed, I would be the first female operator to be on the Duty Bomb Disposal Officer Roster alongside the men. Any blunder and it would harm not only my own career but make it harder for any woman trying to become a bomb disposal officer in the future. I could not afford to falter or fail.

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I passed the Advanced Bomb Disposal Course – coming second in the class – on Friday 22 December 1989. I could identify and defuse all types of bombs, and was a battlefield expert on chemical weapons, plotting chemical bomb locations then calculating the width of the gas cloud and the downwind vapour hazard as toxic gases move across the battlefield. I knew how to locate buried bombs and mines (it’s almost 80 years since the Blitz, but there are still thousands of unexploded bombs around the country). I could clear an IED (improvised explosive device), the terrorist bomb, by thinking like the bomber: what do I want the victim to touch? Where would they stand? How can I catch them out?

My first experience of clearing live wartime explosives was dramatic. Operation Crabstick at Eastleigh Airport in Hampshire involved clearing a system of underground pipes filled with explosive cartridges, fitted in 1941 as a defensive system against potential enemy landings. There were 18 mines, each one 40ft long, and the risk of explosion was so high that six miles of the nearby M27 was closed, trains diverted, and 14 homes evacuated.

Lucy Lewis newspaper clipping‘Hello Zero, Whisky Two Three breaking the surface now, over.’ I noticed a brief delay before Major Lauder, in charge of the operation, responded. ‘Roger that, Whisky Two Three, out.’ He later revealed that when my voice came over the radio everyone looked round in surprise, as never before had a woman’s voice been heard on the EOD radio network during an operation. The morning after, this massive operation brought a page three article in a national newspaper, with the headline ‘Army Sends in Woman to Clear Mined Airport’ [see above].

In the summer of 1990, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces drew our attention away from routine bomb disposal and I was on a tour of duty. With coalition attacks and air strikes on Iraqi forces all day and all night, the security situation escalated, so every UK base was on a higher alert, with increased armed guards and more restrictions.

One morning near the end the tour, a letter from the WRAC appeared on my desk explaining it was to disband to allow women to be integrated alongside their male colleagues. I wasn’t eligible to become a Royal Engineer as the only role open to women at that time was for a qualified civil engineer – so no more bombs. I transferred to the Royal Military Police and served a further eight years, before retiring as a major, aged 34, in 1998 to start a family with my husband, a fellow officer.

As an unemployed civilian, albeit a heavily pregnant one, I signed on at the Job Centre. The official interview was brief – ‘What sort of work have you done before?’ they’d ask.

I’d reply: ‘Bomb disposal.’

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From the very first days of training, I was constantly reminded that we could never escape the death aspect of the job. In the Second World War, the life expectancy of a bomb disposal officer was just ten weeks. During the Falklands War, the casualty rate was 100 per cent. My attitude was one of blind denial: it won’t happen to me. And, I kidded myself, if the worst happened, death would be instant and painless.

This belief worked right up until 30 July 1990, when Ian Gow, the Tory MP, was murdered. The IRA planted a bomb under his car outside his home. He suffered the classic unsurvivable injuries that are the result of an IED placed under the driver’s seat, but he remained conscious and spoke to his wife, living for at least ten minutes after the blast. From that moment on, I could no longer pretend to myself that any fatal mistake would be swift.

Bomb disposal officers are high-value targets for terrorists. I adopted a number of safety measures such as changing how I travelled to work every day, varying the time I set off – anything to break a predictable pattern. I checked under my car carefully, and always went on different running routes.

Decades later, this feeling of lurking danger hasn’t left me. I’d been told that bomb disposal officer John Phillips survived a bomb exploding on HMS Antelope during the Falklands War because he was standing against the ship’s bulwark. After hearing this, it became automatic for me to stand next to a solid object whenever possible, even on the concourse of King’s Cross station while looking at the departure boards. In the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, most of the victims who died were standing in the centre of the foyer, while those standing around the walls survived.

In Belgium in 1988 the IRA walked down the queue of civilian cars waiting at traffic lights until they found one with plates only issued to the Army. They shot the driver dead. He saw them coming towards him but was trapped. As a result, I instinctively avoid getting so close to the car in front that I can’t pull out and get away. When I visit a restaurant or a pub I still won’t sit with my back to the door and I note the exit routes before I sit down. I open all parcels standing up (it saves getting your legs blown off) and not over a flat surface (it deflects the blast into your face).

Lifesaving habits die hard.

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All of my military experiences have led me to my role as Marshal at the University of Cambridge, a mainly ceremonial role that sees me officiate at graduations and college events. Becoming the first female Marshal in 2018 feels very different to being the first female bomb disposal operator back in 1989. I sense that I am the last piece of the jigsaw, no longer one of the first pieces out of the box. Those around me are willing me to succeed, not waiting for me to fail.

The legacy of my military training is relevant to my current role – and who knows where it will take me. Whatever the next challenge brings – I’m ready for it.

This is an edited extract from Lucy’s book Lighting the Fuse, which will be published by Trapeze on 8 July, price £18.99. To order a copy for £16.14 until 18 July, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.